I’m writing this on Holocaust Memorial Day listening to the testaments of Survivors and their families. Again and again, they talk speak about the deliberate cruelty of their neighbours, colleagues, peers and friends, of children, administrators, managers, of Kapo – the day to day prisoner-managers of concentration camps. Again and again, presenters insist that they focus on the genuinely heroic people who risked their lives to help Jewish and other people that the Nazis systematically murdered.
The voices of Survivors and their descendants take precedence on Holocaust Memorial Day, to preserve and honour the memory of those killed, to hear the generational impact of the Holocaust.
But this is published the day after because we also need to hear about the many more than 6 million people who allowed the holocaust to happen and positively participated in it.
The mother in law of a friend of mine kept her Nazi uniform in her wardrobe until she died. She didn’t have horns, didn’t goose step down the road, by all accounts she was a normal housewife until she died a few years ago.
Rochus Misch, Hitler’s bodyguard, died in 2013 unrepentant. Like many Germans of his generation he said that he knew nothing about the concentration camps, nothing about the abysmal brutality of his Party.
But then, so did America and Britain, as early as 1941
The picture that illustrates this piece is of Nazis on holiday. Ordinary, hard working taxpayers, respectable, intelligent, fun, family people doing a respectable, legal job.
The water in Germany wasn’t poisoned from 1939 to 1945 and it wasn’t in Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia, the Americas, Greece, Assyria, Serbia, Ukraine, Indonesia, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Northern Iraq, Darfur, China or Myanmar. The British weren’t suffering from insanity in South Africa when we set up concentration camps at the turn of the 20th century, or at Amritsar, Bengal or Kenya.
As a society, we always vote in favour of reduced State benefits and we all know about the hundreds of thousands of deaths and the endless grinding misery caused to the most vulnerable by austerity. The people most likely to vote in favour of this are least likely to be impacted by it. We know that it’s only when the more affluent are affected by things like the poll tax or cuts in tax credits and other State Benefits that they take these issues seriously, and only then does political change occur, because we believe that the poor are responsible for their own misery. The working poor can look down on the destitute and homeless. The disabled, who have suffered terribly under austerity, can scapegoat the mythical 'scrounger' someone who lies about being ill in order to live on £73 a week and be called in to endless meetings to prove how ill they are.
Every single one of us is capable, not just of allowing but of actively participating in causing terrible harm to people we don’t know, and sometimes to people we do know. The reason our prisons routinely produce career criminals is because in the UK we want all prisoners to suffer. It doesn’t matter if they’ve not paid their TV license or are 12 years old, if they’re mentally ill or destitute, if someone’s in prison we resent them having sufficient food. The death penalty remains very popular, and if you gamble put £5 on it being discussed in Parliament within the next 5 years. Very few of the people who want other people to suffer – not to be rehabilitated and returned to be useful to society, but to really suffer, often to be sexually tortured – would identify as sadists. Any number of people who want a return of the death penalty are highly educated, excellent company, good, friendly people who just want to kill other people.
5 days before Holocaust Memorial Day people we very recently chose to represent us voted to prevent refugee children being united with their parents. These politicians have huge public support, the same public who yesterday bowed their heads and shed a tear for people dehumanised by a State that also had huge public support.
Humans are pretty simple: if you’re in our gang you must be good or you wouldn’t be in our gang. Anyone not in our gang might be tolerable, but some will be our enemy, and many of our enemies are so unlike us that they can should be harmed and sometimes killed.
Some years ago the friendly husband of a lovely woman told me about his latest design, a belt with pockets for cigarettes and a lighter. “We’re aiming at 13- to 15-year-old girls.” He’d made entirely legal fortunes from this kind of business, getting his designs made in China or India, avoiding rather than evading paying taxes, resenting the minimum wage, and was welcomed as a good chap within his social circles. He was friendly, generous, and always found a silver lining to every cloud. 13-year-old girls – not girls like his daughters or the daughters of his friends - were things to make money from, as were the Chinese or Indian workers creating his cheap goods.
Don’t mistake pleasant people for decent people.
Annoying people who won’t shut up about how awful things are are the ones who get things changed for the better.
None of us is entirely innocent. Our success as a species is due to our innate, predatory aggression. If that statement horrifies you or makes you proud you may as well be horrified by or proud of walking upright on two legs. There’s no shame or pride in being what we are: mammals with sharp teeth and forward facing eyes who are also capable of great acts of generosity, sacrifice, even heroism, for people we care about. The work, certainly of therapy but perhaps of being alive, is about becoming as fully rounded as we can be, about being able to look at parts of ourselves we find difficult, shameful, even frightening, and accepting that they belong to us as much as the lovely, friendly, hard working, respectable, helpful, generous, caring parts.
Because that which we find unbearable in ourselves we dump on to others. And history endlessly illustrates where that leads.
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